Burgundy saw heavy and widespread frosts at the end of April 2016 and localised hail exactly a month later, which together did their best to decimate the region’s vineyards. In fact, given the term originates from the brutal Roman punishment of forcing legions to club to death one in every 10 of their soldiers, it hardly does justice to the scale of devastation. The least fortunate lost between 70 and 90 per cent of their grapes and the barrel rooms looked decidedly bare when I visited the region that November. Guillaume Tardy in Vosne-Romanée said his 80-year-old father could not recall there ever being such a severe frost in Burgundy.
The more encouraging news is that 2017 quantities are looking ample, which should hopefully mean that release prices of 2016 will not be unduly increased to compensate. Winemaker Mark Haisma suggested there will be a 2 to 9 per cent price rise across his wines, and with sterling at least no worse against the euro than this time last year, the main challenge will be getting hold of enough of the precious juice in the first place. Burgundy specialist Jason Haynes suggests that demand for reds will be high – “they are fresher than 2015, with nice acidity and, despite being a cooler vintage, have natural concentration due to low yields.” Whites, he says, are more mixed, “but the best are classic and racier than 2015”. Haisma found it hard to make generalisations, but suggested that his reds have “the fruit quality of 2010 and the nice acidity of 2007”, while whites were a blend of the two previous vintages: “Crystalline, crunchy and more refreshing than 2015, but with more lushness than 2014”.
Bernard Hervet, former director of Maisons Faiveley and Bouchard, also called the wines classic, adding “[Côte de] Nuits reds are particularly good – outstanding for Gevrey (Chambertin) and also very good for lesser-known Marsannay and Fixin”. He observed that prices for the 2017s at the Hospices de Beaune auction showed the top Grand Crus continuing to pull away from the pack – the hammer went down on a bid for a single barrel of Bâtard Montrachet at €118,000. With a number of senior Grand Cru sites unusually badly affected by the frost, including Echezeaux, Chambertin and Musigny, scarcity of this vintage is likely to cause prices to rise by 10 per cent or more for the most sought after wines.
I began my own tastings of 2016 at Domaine Jean Guiton in Bligny-lès-Beaune. Despite only producing a third as much wine as he is usually capable of, Guillaume Guiton has made a set of charming but substantial wines, which he says “have more freshness than 2015, but still with good concentration and ripeness, more typical for the region”. He observed that 2016 was sunny but cooler than 2015, which preserved aromas better, and with a later harvest. “I love 2015 but prefer 2016,” he continued. In a confident line-up, his Beaune 1er Cru “Sizies”, Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru “Vergelesses” and Volnay “Petit Poisots” were especially noteworthy – concentrated but focused, densely textured but sappy and lively too, and good examples of “rapport qualité prix”.
At de Montille’s cellar in Meursault, winemaker Brian Sieve led a tasting of the domaine’s top cuvées, including the ever sought after Volnay 1er cru “Taillepieds”, Pommard 1er cru “Rugiens-Bas” and Vosne-Romanée 1er cru “Malconsorts”. Sieve extracted 25 per cent less during fermentation of the reds than in 2015, explaining he wanted to ensure the wines remained supple rather than angular and comparing the vintage stylistically to 2002, “with its ripe but crunchy fruit, pure but juicy tannins and bright acidity”. Reds here were ample but energetic, with signature powdered velvet tannins. These will be an essential purchase for any cellar, on release. Whites too were excellent – unusually the vintage does not necessarily favour one colour over the other – especially the old vine Meursault 1er crus “Poruzots” and “Perrieres”, Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru and an outstanding Chevalier Montrachet from sister domaine Chateau de Puligny Montrachet.
Tasting down the road at Domaine Ballot-Millot again suggested that vivacity was back on the menu after the richer weight of 2015. A lovely set of Meursaults here was more in line with 2014. Of Charles Ballot’s top 1er crus, Perrières was the most monolithic, Charmes had both power and precision, and Genevrières, with its hints of green hazelnuts and digestive biscuits on the nose, showed great drive and focus on the palate, pulling away to a long, juicy yet saline finish.
Over the way in Chassagne Montrachet, Philippe Colin was typically phlegmatic about losing 50 per cent of his overall production to the frosts. Recently, a number of growers have chosen to blend their different sites into single cuvées; famously, this year, six of the domaines with vines in Grand Cru Montrachet – including Romanée-Conti, Leflaive and Comtes Lafon – have co-vinified their grapes into two barrels, comprising 600 bottles, a tenth of their usual production. But Colin has kept all his vineyards separate to highlight the individuality of his four premier crus, making just three or four barrels of each. The wines showed more shades of 2014, with better tension and linearity yet still quite immediate in their charms. I was torn between the opulent, swashbuckling “Vergers” from deep, clay soils and the elegance, finesse and spice of “Chenevottes”, with its greater concentration of stones in the vineyard. There is a place for both in the cellar and also for Colin’s Montagny, a new wine this year, which had good drive, freshness and mid-palate weight.
Read Part Two.
Tom Harrow is a fine-wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine-wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter.